Despite the many advances that Americans have made in the issue of civil rights for minorities, there is still a long way to go toward addressing the systemic and institutionalized inequalities minorities experience. Observing the criminal justice system of the United States and its systemic discrimination of minorities, it is clear that many obstacles still exist that unfairly burden African-Americans and other minorities in America. A large number of instances and research reports suggest that the American criminal justice system is biased and prejudiced while treating minorities as compared to whites. As a result, the intrinsic unfairness and discriminatory practices of the American justice system make it very difficult for minorities to assert their personhood and achieve social equality.
The issue of racial discrimination and social injustice in the criminal justice system has deep-seated roots in the history of slavery and emancipation in the United States. During slavery’s hundreds of years of existence in the United States, African Americans were exploited by white people in many different ways, robbing them of their personhood. It was very hard for white people to digest freedom of African Americans and they tried new ways to prove them as inferior and incapable. Black people were categorised as criminals by the dominating white population after the abolition of slavery. They were refused jobs and were categorised as incompetent, lazy, violent and addictive of drugs. Categorising and humiliating African Americans was a strategy that largely prevailed in southern states after abolition. Such a branding of one community painted a negative image of theirs and the society started seeing African Americans in the same way that was painted by their ancestors.
Even after slavery, many white Americans searched and found new ways to control African Americans after the abolition of slavery (Davis) White population of southern states designed “Black Codes” which were coded ways to exclude and prohibit African Americans from many different activities. White culture perpetuated all manner of stereotypes of blacks as violent, lazy criminals, socializing those ideas into the prevailing culture to rob African-Americans of their personhood. After slavery was abolished in the United States, the South created a parallel criminal justice system which labelled African Americans as criminals. With this systematic labelling of African-Americans as inherently criminal, the greater cultural perception of blacks as being more deserving of punishment took hold in the criminal justice system (Davis).
Discussion and Analysis
The American criminal justice system, due to this historical prejudice against blacks, has developed into a culture that unfairly discriminates against them in many devastating and permanent ways. Minorities are historically more involved in police action than whites; Latinos and African Americans are stopped three times more by police (ACLU). In New York City, a city with a large proportion of African-Americans, 90% of NYPD stop-and-frisk operations were performed against black, compared to only 8% for whites. Unlike whites, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately stopped by police and checked, suggesting a history of racial profiling that unjustly persecutes minorities for their skin color (HRW).
Despite the fact that African Americans only comprise 13 % of the total American population, they form the majority of the American prison population. Among people arrested for drug related offences, African Americans make up more than 34%. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there has been more than a 700% increase in drug related offences since the beginning of the War on Drugs, which was started in the 1960s by President Richard Nixon. Compared to whites, African-Americans are up to 11 times more likely to be arrested for the same crimes. Historically, African Americans have a 20% greater chance of being arrested in drug related cases than whites, while Hispanics have a 40% greater chance. In 2002, 80% of all Americans who were sent behind bars for drug-related crimes were African Americans. Prospects do not get easier after being arrested, either; research suggests that once African Americans are arrested in drug related offences, the criminal justice system provides a disproportionately higher length and severity of sentences than their white counterparts (DIANE).
The problems evident within the American prison system for African-Americans are myriad, as all steps of the criminal justice system are systematically designed to provide blacks with few resources for recourse. African Americans, due to their disproportionately lower incomes, have lesser access to effective defense lawyers, and as a result must wait longer to receive fair trials than white defendants who are arrested and go to trial for similar crimes. The American Bar Association found various irregularities in cases involving African Americans, and expressed concern over the growing racial discrimination found there. There are also many cases wherein African Americans are kept in prison without a trial because of their lack of a proper defense and the myriad bureaucratic roadblocks that African-Americans experience at the trial stage of the criminal justice process. In many instances, African American defendants are put in a position in which they must plead guilty even if they are innocent, and are declared innocent only after years in prison, if at all.
When it comes to issues of the death penalty, the justice system as a whole disproportionately gives harsher sentences to African-Americans. While more than half of all murder victims in America are black, the death penalty is most often utilized (77%) against black-on-white violence, evincing a specific culture that judges blacks killing whites more harshly than whites doing the same to people of any race (AmnestyUSA, 2015). Race is the factor ta most death row inmates have in common, and therefore becomes one of the most important indicators that go into providing a death sentence. Even when the death sentence is not levied against a defendant, the for-profit prison system unfairly forces blacks to commit to a very aggressive, violent culture in order to survive in prison, incentivizing them to remain in prison. High levels of recidivism in African-American ex-convicts also points to the lack of resources they are given to rehabilitate themselves during and after their prison stay, as well as indicates the culture that prohibits black ex-cons from getting back on their feet.
Luckily, the issue of discrimination within the criminal justice system has become more of a hot-button issue in public policy and popular culture, particularly in recent cases of police brutality against black suspects. Michelle Alexander, a famous civil rights lawyer, expresses her concern on such prejudiced practices of law enforcement agencies in her book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” discussing the fact that that white people commit more drug related crimes than African Americans, but they do not receive the same level of punishment as whites.
Efforts to correct the misperceptions of African-Americans that lead to their mistreatment in the criminal justice system include works of journalism meant to raise public awareness. Eugene Jarecki, in his documentary, “The House I Live in,” worked to expose the hypocrisy of the ‘Black Codes’ that still unfairly discriminate against African-Americans. Jarecki exposes the myth about African Americans and Latinos being more prone to criminal behaviour, and describes how law enforcement and the criminal justice system is biased against minorities. According to Jarecki, “We lived for a very long time with the idea that crack is a black drug and powder is a white drug, and the actual facts that I discovered when I made the film is that crack was never a black drug”. While whites are the most prevalent population of hard drug users, this stereotype still falls on African-Americans – part and parcel of the incredible history of discrimination and lack of personhood they have been forced to experience (Jeter and Simon). Documentaries and other social justice projects such as these work to correct these mistaken perceptions against blacks, aiming to create a more equitable environment for minorities in America.
Despite ostensibly living in a ‘post-racial’ America, racial profiling, unfair sentencing and discriminatory practices in both law enforcement and the criminal justice system lead to a culture in which black people are systematically targeted for imprisonment and a life of crime. With such a harsh zero-tolerance policy on offenses, and discriminatory practices that unfairly focus on minorities over whites for the same problems, the criminal justice system makes it harder for blacks to achieve the equality of which they have been robbed since their days of slavery. In order to address this problem, these specific issues of police brutality, stop-and-frisk, and the disproportionate sentencing and arresting of black individuals must be confronted head on. Only through an acknowledgement of the systems in place to keep black men and women from uplifting themselves from low-income areas and getting better lives after being arrested and convicted of crimes can African-Americans be given an honest shot at achieving equality within the United States.
Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012.
Amnesty International. "U.S. Death Penalty Facts" Amnesty International USA. April 19,
Davis, A. Y. Are prisons obsolete? New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.
DIANE. Justice On Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System. Washington, DC: DIANE Publishing, 2000.
HRW. Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs. Government . United States: Human Rights Watch, 2000.
The House I Live In. Dir. Eugene Jarecki. Jeter, Nannie and Simon, David. 2012.